32 The Mountain
Bryn would probably know what this is... Finn felt a familiar pang of longing to see his boy as he inspected the dead magical beast.
Sending power through his claws, the smell of cooking flesh wafted into the air as Finn cut through the body, seeking out its core.
He had to be careful to avoid the armor plates, as those were nearly impenetrable to his claws alone.
Pulling out a large glowing green gem, Finn at last confirmed it was likely rank three based on the level of energy radiating off the core in his hand.
With previous experience, Finn forced energy into the core, purifying and converting it into a warm golden color identical to his own before absorbing it. From what he could sense in his own core, he still had a long way to go before it reached a new stage.
Meanwhile, the little light foxes that had been traveling with him were picking at the meat where its head used to be connected. I guess cooked meat was preferable to raw meat even to magical beasts, huh... Finn learned a little bit more about his little companions.
Now then, before anything else happens... Finn looked off into the distance. Indeed, there was a dark blue shadow that rose up high into the sky into a flat point. Its color contrasted with the bright oranges and purples of the sunset.
Damn, better wait until the morning... From weeks spent in these woods, Finn knew there were far more dangers in the night, not including the lack of sunlight for himself.
Curling up, he found himself joined by the little stowaways, who curled themselves up in the nooks of his form and fell fast asleep. Shrimp had apparently taken a special liking to him, and curled up right underneath his head, showcasing its total disregard for Finn's personal space.
This brat... I wonder if you taste like shrimp too... Finn thought humorously as the lay his head down carefully to avoid disturbing the little furball.
Finn woke up, having not been ambushed in the night. Small blessings I suppose... Finn felt today would be a good day. Of course, he had zero basis with which to back this feeling, but he didn't care.
Looking in the distance, it was difficult to tell how far the mountain was, same with its height. Unless one was right at its base, it was hard to judge a mountains true size.
Maybe if I climb it, I can finally gain a bearing on where to travel... Finn considered this for a moment. This was the first landmark he had seen these past couple weeks that could possibly help him find the correct direction home.
Who knows, maybe at that height I will be able to see smoke from a faraway village, or maybe even the grassy plains at the edge of the Border Woods. Wouldn't that be nice... Finn hoped for the best. After all, it could lead him...
Home... Finn thought wistfully. It was decided then. It wasn't like he had any better ideas. Rising on all fours, Finn began trudging along, the chirps and squeals of the little light foxes running along his back breaking the depressing silence as he marched.
Several rest stops later, Finn approached what he assumed was the base of the rather large mountain due to the sudden increase in elevation. From here on, it was all uphill.
Heh, if I was still my old self, this would be impossible... Finn wryly chuckled at the thought. His old body wouldn't have been able to climb a mountain at his age.
As he approached, the bluish haze of the most had faded into layers of dark green. The mountain was teeming with trees, giving it a vibrant feeling of life.
However, now that he was closer, Finn could see a strip of black amongst the sea of green near the peak, as if the trees vanished in that area. It looked like a black scar along an otherwise beautiful green painting.
I wonder what happened there? Finn began feeling a strange premonition of danger. Why does everything out of the ordinary always lead to something dangerous? Finn internally grimaced.
If possible, he wanted to avoid conflict, but it always seemed to find him on its own. Am I a magnet for other magical beasts or something? Finn thoughts went off on a tangent before reeling them in again.
Finn shook his head and cleared his mind of all unnecessary thoughts. Although he wanted to avoid risks, this was one he was willing to take. Who knows how long I would wander before finding another mountain. I need to at least try... Finn decided to climb.
After all, when am I not in danger in these dreadful woods. It's not like this is any different than usual... Finn took the first steps on the path to the top.
Despite its height, it wasn't long before Finn was almost a third of the way up. Things were going smoothly, so far anyway.
I wonder how tall this mountain is? Finn would often ask himself these pointless questions to drive away the boredom. That, and he was trying to ignore Shrimp, who was chewing on one of his horns again.
Although it was bone, Finn could still slightly feel the chewing. It was quite a strange sensation, one that he resigned himself to patiently ignore.
Hmm? Finn looked down. At some point, the dirt ground had turned into gravel. Looking all around, he realized that the gravel actually formed... a path!
Finn's eyes widened. The way the gravel was collected and formed made it obvious that it was intentionally placed here, which could only mean one thing...
People! This must have been put here by people! Finn nearly started shaking in excitement. To see a friendly face after so long, who wouldn't be excited?
Before he could start running down the path however, some details grabbed his attention. The gravel path, although clearly man-made, showed signs of deep neglect, as if it had been left alone for years. Many weeds and plants were growing on the path, which indicated its lack of use for a long period of time.
Finn's bubbling excitement grudgingly receeded. This path, as well as the people who might have laid it, likely left long ago.
Of course there were other possibilities, like this path was just one they stopped using after making a new one, but it was unlikely, as Finn couldn't smell any scents that reminded him of people around the area.
Ultimately refusing to get his hopes up, Finn followed the old gravel path as it curved in a route up the mountainside. Each step created a relaxing crunching sound, reminding Finn of hikes along similar trails in his old life.
As he went higher, a nice breeze blew along his scales. Finn took a long breath, admiring the fresh mountain air. It was cooler and dryer than the moist air of the woods below.
The mountain's topography followed a relatively simple pattern. For a while it would be a slightly steep incline, then it would gradually plateau into flat land before becoming steep again, similar to how stairs are shaped. Now, he was just coming over another steep portion.
Wait, what's that? Looking ahead in the distance, Finn could see a change in the scenery. Instead of the usual tree covered plateau, it was instead empty.
It was as if the whole area had been cleared of trees, but that wasn't the surprising part. Ahead, there were hundreds of what appeared to be stone structures lined up in an observable pattern.
It looked almost like... a village! Finn hurried his pace. Yes, this must be a village... Finn could see a dilapidated wooden fence surrounding the stone village.
Finn wondered what kind of people could have built a settlement in these dangerous lands, but even further, he wondered what had happened to them.
Finn couldn't smell anything. To his sense of smell, it was as if these buildings were no different than the mountainside itself. Clearly, this place had been abandoned, but why?
Walking through what once could have been a gate, Finn examined the buildings carefully. What surprised Finn the most was the uniformity of the designs.
Each house, at least Finn assumed they were houses, were constructed in a very block like fashion. Although each building had slight differences, every one of them had this unique stylized look to them.
Walking up close to one of them, Finn could see faint lines in between certain blocks. Hmm, they were built similar to brick buildings. I wonder what adhesive they used to connect the stones together? Having owned a construction company in his former life, Finn could appreciate the design and effort it took to build these homes.
The bricks were cut almost perfectly even, giving the outer surface a nice flush look. In fact, the cuts seemed almost too perfect. Incredible craftsmanship... Finn praised wholeheartedly.
The stones used must've come from the mountain itself... This was a fairly obvious assumption. The further he went up the mountainside, the rockier the terrain had become, and the dark grey stones used in the construction of these buildings matched the stones embedded into the mountain.
Looking at the rotten wood that was the door to the home, Finn was dumbfounded. I guess I'm too big to enter it... Finn forgot that he indeed was a size bigger than a horse now, and quite a bit wider.
I don't think I will be able to fit in Bryn's room anymore, not without demolishing the frame... Finn lampooned as he realized an underlying truth. It would be quite difficult to fit in the farmhouse should he ever get home.
The thought of not being able to lie down next to the fireplace suddenly filled him with sadness.
Finn shook his head, forcing the depression away. Instead of the door, he went up to a square cutout in the side of the house, a window.
Pushing his head through, he peered into a small, poorly lit room. Opening his mouth, Finn used his power, creating a glowing ball of light in his throat that illuminated the dark space.
The light revealed very old and rotten wooden furniture in a small and compact living area. Chairs, a table covered in various wooden utensils, and a bed in the corner.
Upon closer inspection, Finn could see some worrying signs. There were clothes strewn everywhere, and it was a complete mess with all manner of things strewn about.
Whoever left this house... left in a hurry. What were they running from? Finn suddenly didn't feel so safe.
Finn nearly had a heart attack as he jumped at the sound, only to remember his head was still inside the house. It smacked the stone ceiling, causing dust to rain from above.
What the hell was that? It sounded to Finn like a clay pot being smashed.
A squeal from inside the house gave him his answer. At some point, his little companions had run inside in their invisible state, so he didn't notice. Over in the corner where a shelf was located, a pot had been pushed to the floor, smashing it and releasing the contents within.
The four light foxes had appeared and were licking whatever had spilled. Taking a whiff of the fragrance, Finn knew immediately what it was... honey!
Those little rascals, scaring me half to death, all for some honey... Despite himself, Finn felt embarrassed.
Pulling himself out of the window, Finn examined a couple more houses, each with similar situations inside.
I wonder what happened here? It was a complete ghost town. Although the houses were well built, nature had begun to reclaim them, with weeds and vines growing up many of the houses he passed.
All these houses were built on either side of a small dirt road that cut through the length of the village. It was on this dirt road that Finn was walking, trying to find any signs that could tell him what caused these people to flee.
As he neared the center, Finn finally got his answer. When he came upon the scene, Finn stood perfectly still, too shocked to form coherent thoughts.
Bodies, bodies everywhere, with nothing remaining of them but charred skeletons. At what was likely the village center, a scene of carnage was painted before Finn.
Many of the surrounding stone houses had deep black scorch marks, consistent with strong and high temperature flames.
The remains of those who once lived here were also burnt black as night, some leaving behind gruesome poses, as if they had tried to run, but had been caught in a tornado of fire before they could escape, dying in agony.
Some of the bodies were covered in rusted metal, which must've been gleaming armor at some point in time.
In fact, there were remains of weapons and armor all over the place, most rusted beyond repair being exposed to the elements for who knows how long.
One thing was certain, a tragic battle occured here. Against what, Finn didn't want to find out. Whatever could cause such carnage is not something I would like to face...
Finn shuddered as he slowly looked around, a horrible scene was recreated from his imagination as he pictured the battle. Soldiers defending against a fire-spewing demon as innocent people fled for their lives.
Small sensations on his back brought Finn back to reality. His little companions had rejoined him after having their snack. They seemed oblivious to the horror around him.
Looking back at them, he witnessed the mother, he assumed anyway, licking the remaining honey off the snouts of the little pups, who appeared reluctant to be cleaned in this manner.
Finn sighed, the display of levity calming him down. He had never witnessed such death and devastation, and it was definitely quite a shock. Saying a quick prayer, Finn moved on, determined to reach the top and be on his way.
The path he had been walking on led to the other side of the village. Along the way, Finn could see more bodies, most of them burnt various shades of black.
Finn ended up coming to another gate on the opposite side.
What remained of this gate was a pile of ashes and burnt wood. Finn could see many more cauterized bodies covered in rusted armor around. Whatever attacked this place, came in through here... Finn frowned internally at this.
Further ahead the path continued onto the next incline, leading up to the peak. Finn debated on whether or not it was worth the risk to continue.
On one hand, there was a chance that whatever attacked this place was still here, living on this mountain. On the other, this clearly happened years ago and Finn's instincts were not picking up any signs of danger yet.
At that thought, Finn glanced back at his passengers. The little light foxes were curled up comfortably in between the two spikey growths on his back, like a secure nest.
These guys seem to sense danger faster than me, and they aren't reacting yet... Finn recalled how they had sensed the armored boar earlier than he did. If they aren't scared, I shouldn't be.
To continue on was the decision.
Finn walked through the destroyed gates, leaving the scene of death behind him. The gravel path had not reached an end, and it led him further up to the peak.
Finn could see the top, but when he walked over the crest of a hill, he finally found the scar along the mountainside he had seen from the base.
A forest fire? Finn looked around warily at the field of burnt trees that resembled sinister black spears jutting out of the earth. The ground was black with ash and soot, and Finn's sense of smell was flooded with scents of burning charcoal, and even a hint of sulfur.
Oddly, there was nothing growing at all in the wake of the destruction. Finn knew about forest fires, and it was common knowledge that after the trees were burned away, new growth would sprout almost immediately.
It's almost like something is keeping anything from regrowing... Finn looked around until he finally noticed an anomaly. There was a cave at the back of this burnt landscape.
Finn felt himself shiver, the premonition he had at the beginning of his climb coming back in full force.
A nagging sensation started tugging at his mind.
A squeak from behind him made Finn jolt as he glanced back. The four little light foxes were standing at attention, looking at Finn with what Finn could only interpret as... worry.
What are they doing? Finn looked closely and noticed something amiss. Where they were standing was a sort of border, where the luscious green grass turned into blackened ash and burnt soil. It was like a divide between the sides of life and death.
Finn looked down and noticed he was standing on the other side of this divide.
Is this... territorial marking? Finn suddenly had an epiphany. Was this the source of the nagging sensation, my instincts telling me that I'm trespassing?
No matter what Finn did or how he moved, the light foxes refused to join him, and just watched him silently from the side of life.
Although his instincts weren't prickling at any source of danger, Finn erred on the side of caution and crossed back over, and was immediately "tackled" by his little companions, who rejoined him on his back.
Taking another glance at the cave in the distance, Finn didn't see any signs of movement. Nothing horrifying came out to investigate his presence.
Then, the wind shifted in his direction, bringing about a new scent...
At same moment he noticed it, his little passengers all let out alarmed squeals. Acting purely on instinct, Finn ran as fast as he could away from the cave.
Whatever terrible monster he had smelled, everything about it screamed untenable danger!
When he finally got a fair distance away, Finn spun around to make sure he wasn't being chased. Confirming he was in the clear, Finn let out a shaky breath.
What could it be? Something terrible was living in that cave! Just its scent alone scares the life out of me! Finn keyed his senses up to eleven as he looked all around to make sure nothing was waiting in ambush.
Why didn't it chase me? Finn realized the problem. Normally, once any powerful magical beast sensed his presence, they would often immediately attack.
Finn thought for a moment. Is it... not home? This was just a guess, but it was the only reason he could think of at why he wasn't being attacked right now.
After all, I did unwittingly step into its territory. With the tempers he knew wild magical beasts had, that should've been enough to accidentally provoke whatever was living there.
It was a very difficult internal debate, whether or not he should just leave or reach the peak by taking a detour. I am so close, it wouldn't even take me an hour to reach the top, even if I bypass that creature's territory.
Ugh! I've come this far, I have to reach the top. It was time to be bold for a change. Steeling his nerves and heightening his wariness, Finn took another path.
A little over an hour later, after walking well around that torched landscape, Finn made it to the peak unscathed.
Oh! Finn internally exclaimed at an interesting discovery as he came over the final crest of a hill. There was a worn down sentry tower still standing on the peak. It was likely the people who had once lived in the village below used it for scouting purposes.
Feeling a rough breeze over his scales, Finn took a good long breath and gazed into the distance in all directions.
There was nothing but an endless landscape of green everywhere he looked. It went on for as far as his eyes could visibly see. No other landmarks were visible, just a neverending forest.
Sitting down on his haunches, Finn remained still as the wind blew across him, gazing out towards the horizon. He remained in that position for a long time. His only solace for this disappointment was that he wasn't alone anymore.
As looked down, he could see the pups trying to fight against the strong winds, only to have themselves blown backwards. The adult light foxes watched from the safety of Finn's body, wisely using him to shelter themselves from the breeze.
Eventually, they gave up and hid behind Finn as well, the parents nuzzling their windswept fur as if to say "Did you have fun?"
Let's go... Finn sighed heavily. As he turned around to walk back down the mountain, a bright flash of light grabbed his attention.
A good distance away from the base of the mountain he was on, there was... fire! As Finn's focus zeroed in, he couldn't believe what he saw.
A tornado, a tornado of flame! As he continued to watch, the tornado dissipated, but it was followed up by sequential bursts of hot intense fire bursting through the top of the treeline.
What's happening over there? Finn watched with concerned curiosity at the strange phenomena. Several trees in that area shook, while some directly collapsed. Are magical beasts fighting?
Through a gap in the treeline, Finn saw tiny figures that appeared to be fleeing from the source of the flames.
Tiny figures that looked like... people!